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Saving Homes During the Pandemic

Saving Homes During The Pandemic

Sarah Kelsey is a staff attorney in our Home Defense Program, which is a specialized unit of Legal Aid that focuses on home ownership issues. The attorneys in Home Defense represent homeowners with mortgage and home scam issues. Sarah particularly focuses her work on scam litigation and home theft cases, but since COVID hit, has also focused a lot on community education and outreach. Below, we interview her about her work during the pandemic. 

To access self-help and community education on housing issues, visit: https://www.georgialegalaid.org/issues/housing 

Have you seen an increase in home scam issues since COVID-19?

I haven’t gotten any new cases yet since COVID hit, but we have seen some cases where the scam took place before COVID, but because people are paying more attention to Legal Aid right now, people have learned about us and contacted us. We do have some cases where people have been ill and they’ve been tricked into signing a deed by someone they know.

I’ve seen a lot of advertisements with messaging like, “Facing foreclosure? I can help” or “I can buy your house fast if you’re in foreclosure”. Sometimes these are legitimate businesses, but often they are scams. I live in south Fulton county and when I drive around the area, I see a lot of these signs. My neighborhood is also filled with these signs. I feel like I’m seeing a lot more of them since COVID. I think a lot of people are being courted for this type of stuff. 

What would you suggest people do who are seeing these signs? 

I’d say that it’s likely a scam if someone is offering to buy your house fast, not going through a real estate agent, and especially if they’re targeting people who are in crisis — people whose homes are in foreclosure. I would say: talk to a lawyer or a HUD certified housing counselor first, and a real estate agent, because typically these businesses “buy houses at a discount”. And “discount” sounds nice, but it’s you that’s putting the house on sale. You’re not getting a fair price; you’re not getting fair market value. 

HUD certified housing counselors typically will help, and often for free, so you may be able to get free assistance with mortgage issues, or you can call our office. To get assistance with a HUD certified counselor, go to HUD.gov/findacounselor 

Here are some more signals of scams to watch out for: 

  • showing up at the house and refusing to leave until someone signs a contract (or signs something)
  • sneaky contracts or quitclaim deeds (people don’t know what they’re signing because of small print, a different page covering the page they’re actually signing, they’re rushed and told the document is something it’s not, or other unscrupulous things)
  • trying to isolate the victim from trusted friends, organizations who can help, lawyers 
  • telling them not to talk to someone about their housing situation (someone who could tell them they’re being scammed.) 
  • Rushing them through the process, telling them they can’t have extra time to think about it/review the documents/talk to a lawyer

Has Home Defense’s work shifted at all since COVID-19?

Yes, we have been getting a lot of calls from people who are behind on their mortgages. I’ve also seen an uptick in some weird servicing issues, like fees that don’t belong being put on an account, or holds getting put on loans where people can’t talk to their mortgage company. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if maybe because mortgage companies are overwhelmed, they’re making mistakes. So I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of stuff, as well as the stuff we would expect to see, like someone calling with a question about a CARES Act forbearance, or what to do if they are not covered by the CARES Act, meaning they do not have a federally-backed mortgage, and they’re falling behind. 

How does having a lawyer help?

People typically don’t know what their options or rights are. So I think it’s good to talk to a lawyer or HUD housing counselor, so that the lawyer or counselor can advocate for people. Unfortunately, I also think that [mortgage companies] are more likely to listen to a lawyer than someone who is advocating for themselves. 

To access self-help and community education on housing issues, visit: https://www.georgialegalaid.org/issues/housing 

 

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